My pet project for this summer will be a collection of Sherlock Holmes paper dolls. If I complete my Grand Plan, I will draw up about 3 dozen characters from various adaptations.
I started with Basil Rathbone because my mom was up for a visit and she is partial to Victorian Rathbone (Who can blame her?) I have already started my next set - Martin Freeman as John Watson. Stay tuned.
Where The Adventures of Robin Hood is the definitive swashbucker, co-writers and co-directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama's The Court Jester is the definitive swashbuckler spoof. Starring Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker, Mildred Natwick, and Robert Middleton, it is the most successful film in a largely inconsistent film career for legendary comedian Danny Kaye. The combination of physical comedy with verbal wit and a beautifully constructed musical score makes this a rare comedy that covers many areas of comedy.
In medieval England, Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) is a minstrel to the Black Fox (Edward Ashley, a character who terrorizes the usurping King Roderick’s reign (Parker) a la Robin Hood with a drop of Zorro. The rightful heir to the throne of England is a baby and has a distinguishing birthmark handed down from generation to generation on his posterior. Yes, his posterior. Yes, we get to see it quite a bit. Stop sniggering. It is up to Hawkins and the strong-willed Maid Jean (Johns) to get the baby to an abbey before all the king’s horses and all the king’s men kill the last member of the righteous royal family.
Hawkins and Jean will later find themselves in the royal castle for reasons I won’t divulge (hey, I don’t want to give away all the jokes). In the castle along with King Roderick include his daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Lansbury), Gwendolyn’s witch-maid Griselda (Natwick), and Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone in a role similar to the ones he played opposite Errol Flynn throughout the 1930s, most notably in The Adventures of Robin Hood). When planning for ceremonies to celebrate his daughter’s imminent marriage to Sir Griswold (Middleton), Roderick sends for the greatest court jester in all Europe - this will be Hawkins in disguise - and for England’s prettiest wenches, which sees Jean and the hidden baby stuck in the castle.
In a fascinating development, two of the more prominent female characters - Jean and Princess Gwendolyn - are strong in their resolve and mind and witty with their tongues. Where Jean can hold her own in swordplay, Gwendolyn is steadfast in her refusal to marry Sir Griswold and affirms her desire to marry someone out of love, not arrangement from her father. After viewing a female-barren Treasure Island (1950), those two characters and the comfortable performances by Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury - both amazingly beautiful in Technicolor - were remarkable and refreshing to see. Along with the always-dependable Basil Rathbone in another medieval villainous role and Mildred Natwick’s hilarious turn as Griselda, Johns and Lansbury are the best in a supporting cast that is already stacked with talent, experience, and quality.
For the many Angela Lansbury fans out there, her role in The Court Jester is anything unlike her previous roles up to this point as she was gradually becoming a serious A-list actress. Soon after The Court Jester she took on many roles that played her older than she was - The Manchurian Candidate (1962) being the prime example - so this is an essential for Lansbury fans.
But we can’t talk about The Court Jester without the man who plays the jester himself, Danny Kaye.
Not everyone is a fan of Kaye’s work - a slew of middling comedy films largely unseen today doesn’t help perceptions of his comedic chops much. Think the man is unworthy? Look at his timing and command of the several, “Get it? Got it? Good.” exchanges and the scene in the final quarter of the film that contains the famous line: “The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true”. Look at his facial expressions when he is first being cast under a spell by Griselda and look at how seamlessly he holds his own in an incredibly fast-paced swordfight with one of the best swordsman of Golden Age Hollywood - Basil Rathbone. Rathbone, despite a long run of playing Sherlock Holmes in a series of over a dozen movies, his swordfighting seems lifted straight from the 1930s (maybe he was reprising his role of Sir Guy of Gisbourne). Kaye would later be modest about his accomplishments behind his training for that scene. But Rathbone would have nothing but praise, pleasantly surprised that Kaye was a, “quick study”. One could replace Danny Kaye with Errol Flynn just for the swordfighing scene and one could see only a negligible difference. Kaye was that magnificent - from his verbal timing and delivery to his physicality.
One outrageous situation follows another even more outrageous situation in The Court Jester. Unless one is truly having a terrible day, it is impossible not to at least smile or chuckle at the hilarity. The musical score by Sammy Cahn, Sylvia Fine, and the entire music department produce songs and a score more than satisfactory considering the nature of the film. The opening number in the beginning credits and especially, “I’ll Take You Dreaming” are both above average songs in a film specializing in rapid-fire nonsense song - though, the latter is anything but a rapid-fire nonsense song. Familiar names in the art direction and costume design departments - including art directors Hal Pereira and Sam Comer and costume designer Edith Head - beautifully recall the artistic and costuming styles of the Technicolor swashbucklers that had been so popular in the 1930s.
The film was an ambitious undertaking by Paramount, which would splash a then-monstrous $4 million budget (~$35 million today) would result in a box office return that could be best equated to a car that can’t get out of second gear. Though initial critical praise was restrained, time has been quite kind to this film - now regarded as Kaye’s greatest film. Thanks to television syndication over the 1970s to the 1990s, The Court Jester became an American favorite and in 2004 was inducted into the LIbrary of Congress’ National Film Registry - an honor I think few involved in the production and few who saw it in theaters would have thought conceivable. Time and distance can do that to hidden gems of cinema.
Certainly, for me, The Court Jester was a hidden gem I had never heard about until two weeks ago. It isn’t challenging to be one of the greatest comedies of all time, but it sure is a deserving, uproariously funny one. Despite having seen hundreds upon hundreds of classic film, it is films like these - the superior films that come out of nowhere - that make my never-ending movie odyssey worthwhile. And to think there’s always still more out there too!
Still not convinced? Well, are there any Joss Whedon fans out there? Whedon recently cited The Court Jester as one of his five favorite films of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m anything but a Whedonite (I respect him with a non-dismissive shrug), but one can’t deny the man has good taste.
So it really doesn’t matter who you are - young, old, Whedonite, non-Whedonite, classic film buff, classic film novice, boy, girl, or anything in between - seek out and watch The Court Jester. It desperately needs to be seen by more people as Danny Kaye’s comedic genius shines brightest here.
Get it? Got it? Good!
My rating: 9.5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down.